Watch out for the birds

There’s a lot to be worried about these days—terrorism, global warming, running out of oil, ozone depletion, nuclear accident, the list goes on. If you’re like us, you’re suffering from threat overload. So we’re hesitant to point out yet another potential danger, one that may be the greatest of them all, at least in the short term: chickens.

Well, not chickens, per se, but rather a virus chickens are known to carry, a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza that will make getting West Nile virus seem like a picnic. Infectious-disease experts around the world are saying that it is virtually inevitable that this disease, which is 100 percent lethal in chickens, will jump from birds to humans in the next several years. The result, they say, is likely to be the worst pandemic since 1918, when a severe influenza strain spread around the world, killing 40 million to 50 million people at a time when the earth’s population was a third of what it is now.

A pandemic almost broke out in 1997, when avian flu was discovered in Hong Kong poultry. Most influenza experts believe it was averted only because every chicken in the area was destroyed. Eighteen people caught the disease in Hong Kong, and six of them died. Since then other outbreaks have occurred in Vietnam and China, with some human deaths.

So far the disease is known to pass only from birds to humans, not from humans to humans. It is a rapidly mutating virus, however, and is highly likely at some point to merge with an existing human flu virus, with devastating results. Remember how the SARS scare shut down air travel to the Far East for a few weeks? Imagine that occurring worldwide over a period of months. The world economy would collapse.

Like global warming, the likelihood of an avian flu pandemic is something experts largely agree on but politicians are largely ignoring. Humans have no immunity to the newest strain of bird flu, and there is no readily available vaccine. Planning for the pandemic must proceed on two fronts, locally and globally. Governments need to have plans in place should the virus hit, and there must be worldwide cooperation on developing a vaccine and distributing it rapidly. Now is the time to begin acting.